Friday, October 19, 2007

Birds of a Feather, by Jacqueline Winspear

Anyone who writes a genteel mystery set in Twenties London must count on being compared to Golden Age detective writers, so I won't apologize for doing so. Ms. Winspear follows pretty much all the rules well and writes an intriguing, well-plotted mystery. Even Maisie's reliance on intuition is fair enough, since her intuitions are not unaccountable--indeed, they hardly seem worth the fuss given to them.

And that touches on my chief complaint with the novel, which was that it takes everything so very, very seriously. Not grimly, or darkly. Just terribly in earnest. It felt like a five-hour session with a counselor who wants you to get in touch with your innermost feelings and divulge your deepest hurts so that you can be made whole and all you can come up with is the desire to go get a hamburger.

I don't know whether this is just the author's natural style or she thinks it necessary to the difficulties of depression and post-war stress, but the people who actually wrote and lived during the time seem to have liked things a bit lighter, and to have coped more by laughing at themselves. Personally, I much prefer the occasional wry twist that makes a Christie or a Sayers novel so engaging.

Nonetheless, I did find it a compelling and even enjoyable read. I finished it up with a spatula in one hand, cooking supper. I might pick up another one of her books if it were lying out on a library table. But I probably wouldn't go hunting for it.


At 11:53 AM, Blogger calon lan said...

This sounds really interesting, and as I've yet to get my hands on it I might have to find it. I'm currently writing about the detective genre and what it represents, so this might be a good addition. (Apparently, I've hit the point in my graduate school career at which I begin making tenuous connections for the purposes of saying something new. Ahh. The post-structuralists would be proud of me.)

At 11:01 AM, Blogger Alaina said...

It's fun discovering new mystery writers, and I liked this book well enough that I'm going to read the other Maisie Dobbs books. They can't be placed on the same level as the oft-hailed mysteries of Sayers, Chesterton, Christie, and Ngaio Marsh (and I don't think anyone has reached the literary genius of Sayers and Chesterton); but they're entertaining reads for mystery lovers, and a good choice for readers who want to avoid gratuitous sex and bad language that seem to permeate so many contemporary novels.

You put your finger on the whole issue of the book taking everything so seriously, though. I didn't recognize it at the time, but there is a lack of lightheartedness -- it's not quite morose or melancholy, but as you say, persistently serious in its exploration of the human heart and emotion.

At 10:28 AM, Blogger Kathleen Marie said...

I just may have to read this...Thanks!

At 8:34 PM, Blogger Ani said...

This book gave me more of an understanding of the effects of World War I on the English culture. It's easy to know the basic facts of the Great War, but I'd never thought about the lasting effects- addictions to morphine, broken families, only sons who died before they could inherit a family business. While I couldn't classify this as a classic either, it gave me a broader understanding of a certain time period in history.

At 11:24 AM, Blogger Rose said...

Just finished it. It was entertaining enough to keep me reading to the end, but I likely won't be interested in reading it again. I felt that the heavy, somber mood was overdrawn, as if the author wanted to be sure that we, the readers, wouldn't miss just how ominous and foreboding everything was.

Maisie's concentration and meditation techniques seemed a bit far-fetched and psychic. Maurice's mentorship, Maisie's class struggles, all seemed too much in the forefront. We weren't allowed to guess anything because nothing was subtle; it was all spelled out for us, again and again.

Also, I thought it highly unlikely that the final twist would have been so surprising to Maisie. Something that was common knowledge to all those families, and that created sentiments that ran so deep, surely would have surfaced long before then. Someone would have mentioned it. The mystery didn't seem substantial enough.

Oh, and it drives me crazy when authors use such a feeble ploy as dangling clues right before our noses and then purposely keep the specifics out of sight, like telling us that Maisie found something but specifically not letting us know what it was. It's supposed to ratchet up the suspense, but really it's just annoying. It's so much more satisfying to be blindsided by something that was mentioned casually earlier on, the way Agatha Christie does.

But it was a very good snapshot of an era, although actually I didn't feel a very strong British influence, other than the obvious British place names. The Cockney dialect was the most British it ever got; I didn't really come away from it feeling like I had gotten a strong dose of British slang, as I do after reading a bit of P.G. Wodehouse.


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